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May 3, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies

by Dave Haller

Chicago White Sox

  • Over the Rainbow? With Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia and los dos cubanos slated for the top four spots in the Sox rotation, Jon Garland was a bit of an afterthought. There was nothing too enticing about him coming into 2005, beyond his youth and nearly 800 healthy career innings. Five years of uninspiring strikeout rates, so-so walk and home run rates, and an overall stagnancy in his career performance didn't seem to foreshadow any radical improvement.

    But after Sunday's shutout against Detroit, Garland had extended his scoreless innings streak to 23, stretched over three starts. He won the AL's Pitcher of the Month award, and now sports a 1.39 ERA, with just one homer and six walks allowed in 39 innings. Alan Trammell called Garland's sinker "outstanding." One start prior, it was his change-up that flummoxed Oakland hitters. While some sinkerballers (see Derek Lowe and Jake Westbrook) have found quick fame by using their out pitch to induce ground balls by the dozen, Garland's never shown such extreme tendencies.

    A .213 opponents' batting average on balls in play (BABIP) indicates that luck has been a major factor in his success. With Garland striking out fewer than four batters per nine innings, expect a lot more balls in play this season. When his BABIP reverts closer to career norms, expect a sharp and potentially nasty regression in his other numbers.

  • Too Young to Dye: The last time Garland allowed a run, April 20 in Detroit, the only run support he needed was Jermaine Dye's two-run bomb off Wil Ledezma in the first inning. It was Dye's first home run of the season, and since then he's gone 4-for-31, with a .350 OPS. For Dye, the painful first leg of the season has looked like this (through Sunday):
    
    AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS EQA VORP
    80 6 14 2 0 3 8 3 16 .175 .208 .313 .517 .157 -6.2
    
    
    That VORP, by the way, is the worst among all major league outfielders. Dye's rapid demise since an October 2001 broken leg has never been more evident. Rumor has it that Baseball Prospectus, impressed by Dye's robust HACKING MASS abilities, is looking to purchase his two-year, $10.15 million contract from the White Sox.

  • Step Right Up! Three Throws for a Dollar! While Ozzie Guillen taunts AL Central foes like a clown sitting atop a dunking machine at the fair, White Sox players are prepping for a 16-game stretch against Kansas City (three games), Toronto (three), Tampa Bay (three), Baltimore (four), and Texas (three). For a team with baseball's best record at 18-7, it doesn't seem too difficult a stretch. The Sox have been winning with pitching and defense:
    
            R/G    RA/G   DEF_EFF
    AL Rank 8th    1st    3rd
    
    

  • McCarthy Watch: At Triple-A Charlotte, Brandon McCarthy has thrown 29.2 innings, allowing 25 hits and nine walks, and a robust 40 strikeouts and a 4.25 ERA. The longball has been his only Achilles' heel so far, having surrendered five. McCarthy is expected to be the first name called should one of Chicago's five starters falter. Baseball Prospectus 2005 ranks him as the #23 prospect in the game.

Oakland Athletics

  • Hey, Mario's Just 54...Think He Can Still Swing a Bat? Perhaps A's fans can cling to Billy Beane's mantra that the first two months of the season are spent identifying what your team needs, because phase one of 2005 is half over. And good riddance. The American League's lowest-scoring lineup has struggled mightily, thanks largely to the sub-Mendoza flailings of Eric Chavez, Eric Byrnes, Keith Ginter, Charles Thomas and Bobby Kielty. Rookie Nick Swisher, the team leader in home runs (three) despite a negative VORP, was just placed on the DL with a bum shoulder, and no hitter has surged in the Brian Roberts sense to relieve some of the burden.

  • Not My Fault: There's plenty of blame to go around, and none of it relates to the absence of Bobby Crosby. His replacement at shortstop, Marco Scutaro, has excelled thus far both defensively and with the bat. A .275/.383/.406 line has been driven by new flashes of plate discipline--12 walks in 86 plate appearances, versus 16 in 477 last year--and he's led Oakland shortstops to an improved defensive efficiency rating compared to last year. Thanks to Scutaro's fine play, Crosby's slow rehab isn't quite as threatening. Certainly it's wise to temper expectations, but if some of Scutaro's improvement sticks, the A's may have a roster dilemma on their hands when Crosby returns in late May or June, with one of Scutaro, Ginter, or Mark Ellis on the bubble.

  • Oh, What a Relief: As the team waits for the hitters to return to form, its pitching has met expectations. It was apparent, after the two December trades, that the A's pitching would be anchored by an extremely deep, talented bullpen. New faces Keiichi Yabu and Kiko Calero fared well out of the gate, though Calero's been shelved for the past two weeks. Justin Duchscherer has been equally sharp in his role, and ranks second among all relievers in VORP. Sixteen strikeouts in 12.2 innings is quite impressive for Huston Street, who's quickly gaining Ken Macha's trust as a 21-year-old rookie. Only one reliever, Juan Cruz, has disappointed. Chad Bradford should return from back surgery in the second half, which would only make Octavio Dotel that much more expendable. Dotel himself has been solid, despite some early control issues.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • On Fire: Sometimes, a new pitch is all it takes to kick a pitcher's career into high gear. Armed with his new cutter, the early results for Brett Myers have been phenomenal. In five starts he's surrendered just 24 hits and two home runs in 33.1 innings, and 34 punchouts and nine walks have led to a 1.35 ERA.

    While this type of early-season mastery is never replicated all season long, Myers is probably a better candidate to maintain his success than, say, Garland or Mike Hampton. Why? First of all, his BABIP is closer to the range of believability. Meanwhile his strikeout-an-inning pace, if it holds, portends a greater shot at success. It will be interesting to see if hitters adjust to Myers' new cutter, or if this post-hype sleeper continues his winning ways.

    The rest of the Phillies' rotation has seen wildly mixed results. Jon Lieber looks like a great free agent signing for Ed Wade, Cory Lidle has been his mediocre self, and Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf (and for a short time, Gavin Floyd) have struggled mightily. At least one more starter will need to start producing to join Myers and Lieber atop the rotation and give the Phillies a fighting chance in the competitive NL East.

  • Losing Its Luster? Last year, for the inaugural season of Citizens Bank Ballpark, Philly fans came out in droves. The average crowd of 40,626 was almost 95% capacity. Thirteen home games into 2005, is fan interest waning? Compared to this point a year ago, Citizens Bank is averaging 10,000 fewer fans per contest. No, the weather hasn't been the greatest, but is it ever in April? With a nod to SABR's Business of Baseball Web site, check out the attendance figures for the past 10 new ballparks to open:
    
    Ballpark         Tm  Yr 1 Att Yr 2 Att Difference
    Safeco*          SEA 35,983   43,300  +7,317
    Petco**          SDN 36,958   37,092  +134
    SBC              SFN 40,972   40,888  -84
    Great American   CIN 29,077   28,238  -839
    Minute Maid      HOU 37,730   35,855  -1,875
    Comerica         DET 30,106   23,720  -6,386
    Bank One         ARI 44,571   37,279  -7,292
    PNC              PIT 30,430   22,037  -8,393
    Citizens Bank*** PHI 39,379   29,395  -9,984
    Miller           MIL 34,704   24,311  -10,393
    
    *Opened mid-season 1999; first two full years are counted
    **Attendances from first 11 games of each season
    ***Attendances from first 13 games of each season
    
    
    So many factors come into play that it's impossible to explain the mass exodus with any degree of certainty. It's still very early, but if trends don't reverse, perhaps the Phillie Phanatic will start peddling batteries outside the main gate to bring in a little extra revenue.

Dave Haller is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and is graduating this month from Taylor University. You can contact Dave by clicking here or click here to read his other articles.

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